The first installment of Black Belt's new entertainment blog focuses on Uzumasa Limelight, a samurai film about a man who's reportedly been slashed and stabbed to death 50,000 times.
Last month, I attended the 15th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, where for 10 days a person could soak up more than 120 flicks from 21 countries. For me, the highlight was being able to watch some award-winning martial arts movies that don't rely on camera tricks and choppy editing — these gems are always wild to witness. One of the closing-night films was the magical masterpiece Uzumasa Limelight, directed by Japanese-American filmmaker and USC film school graduate Ken Ochiai. Before the burgeoning 1960s Hong Kong kung fu film industry gave rise to the “red trousers” troops of daredevil stuntmen, there were the famed kirare-yaku, or “drop-dead” samurai film extras. Sliced, diced and killed off during movie sword fights, they were employed by Kyoto's Uzumasa Studios, and it’s one of them who’s the subject of this film. Uzumasa Limelight follows the career of veteran movie extra Kamiyama, played by a real-life kirare-yaku named Siezo Fukumoto, who’s 71 years old. Through Kamiyama's eyes, we see how the old vanguard — actors who have spent their lives perfecting the dying art of dying on film — is being irreverently dismissed after 40 years of unrelenting dedication to their craft. The reason for their dismissals: Gen X filmmakers don’t respect the old ways and want to replace them with outrageous costumes and CGI tomfoolery. The plot: Kamiyama, who still practices the sword arts after hours on deserted sets, meets a young female extra named Iga Satsuki (Yamamoto Chihiro). She begs him to teach her the tricks of the trade, hoping to one day be good enough to kill Kamiyama in a movie. Unfortunately for her, the genre is fading fast, as is the elderly Kamiyama. At the festival, Ochiai shared the intriguing difficulties of directing Fukumoto: "One of the first challenges was convincing him to be the star. He's a humble person, and throughout his career, his only dialogue was, 'Ugh' and other being-killed-off grunts. He didn't want to be a lead, but when I said this film was for the next generation of young Japanese who don't watch samurai films — where with this film, he can pass on the genre's history — he agreed. Thus the importance of the young female kirare-yaku character Iga. “The other challenge was since Fukumoto is always in the background, whenever I needed him to remain front and center, he'd habitually stay on the side of the frame. When I reminded him to stay in the middle, he'd say, 'No, this is impossible.'" Although many actresses auditioned for the role of Iga, Yamamoto, who practices Chinese martial arts and swordsmanship, was discovered on YouTube, Ochiai said. The producers were delighted to see that she could do the long fight scenes — which the film-within-a-film format dictated — in a single take. For me, it was refreshing to see Fukumoto, an actor who's amassed more than 50,000 screen deaths, finally get to be the life of the film. Watch the trailer for Uzumasa Limelight here. Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors. (Photo by Rick Hustead)